Another Tennessee Republican implies medical board could be dissolved
For the second time in two weeks, a Republican lawmaker implied Tennessee’s top medical licensing board could be dismantled during an ongoing dispute over the board’s efforts to discipline doctors who spread misinformation about coronavirus vaccines.
The Board of Medical Examiners unanimously adopted a policy in September establishing doctors who spread falsehoods about the vaccines could have their medical licenses suspended or revoked. Last week, board members voted to delete the policy from their website – but not rescind the policy itself – to appease a powerful lawmaker.
The issue rose again on Wednesday at a hearing of the Joint Government Operations Committee, which wields some authority over the medical board. During the hearing, several lawmakers asked for more information on how board members defined misinformation.
But only one board member was present, so no answer was immediately available. Instead, Elizabeth Foy, a Department of Health attorney who was representing the board, said she would check with board members.
“I’d be happy to take that back to the Board of Medical Examiners and determine if they have any interest in defining that specifically," Foy said.
That response hit a nerve with one lawmaker.
“I’m probably not the only one up here that was extremely offended by that response about seeing if the board had any interest in bringing this definition back,” said Rep. Kent Calfee, R-Kingston, a committee member.
“I think the chairman has an ask that it be sent back to him in writing. I don’t think its up to the board to decide … And I for one will remember that comment when you come up for sunset,” Calfee added, leaning back in his chair and shaking his head.
Calfee was referencing the board’s upcoming “sunset hearing,” which is a legislative process that weighs the possibility of dissolving government agencies or boards every few years. The hearings are intended as a failsafe for outdated or redundant government entities but are sometimes used by lawmakers to pressure agencies with the possibility of dissolution.
The Board of Medical Examiners is expected to face a sunset hearing in 2022, likely in the first half of the year.
Calfee, reached on his cell phone after Wednesday's hearing, said he raised the possibility of dissolving the board to make it clear members should take lawmaker’s request for a misinformation definition seriously. Calfee said he did not necessarily intend to vote to end the board at the upcoming sunset hearing.
“If that’s their attitude, I’ll definitely remember that when it comes to sunset,” Calfee said. “Now I’m not saying that I’d vote to shut them down.”
MORE: Rep. Kent Calfee goes viral for drinking out of a chocolate syrup bottle
Medical board sought to discipline doctors who spread COVID-19 conspiracy theories
The Board of Medical Examiners, which is responsible for licensing and disciplining doctors throughout Tennessee, unanimously approved its misinformation policy in September.
The policy, a single paragraph written to mirror the stance of the Federation of State Medical Boards, established that doctors have an “ethical and professional responsibility” to share factual information about the coronavirus vaccines and could face consequences if they did not.
Board members also in September instructed the Department of Health investigate doctors who were spreading misinformation to patients or social media, prioritizing extreme cases involving conspiracy theories, outlandish lies or false claims that were easily disprovable.
Lawmakers responded with three bills that prohibited the board from disciplining doctors for how they treat or what they say about coronavirus. The spirit of these bills was eventually folded into a new law saying the board could not discipline COVID-19 misinformation without prior approval from the Joint Government Operations Committee.
Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge, who co-chairs that committee, insists that even before the new law the board did not have authority to create its misinformation policy on its own. He sent three letters demanding the board remove the policy from its website – which Ragan argues makes the policy void – but the board did not take action.
Eventually, Ragan threatened to dissolve the board entirely if the policy was not deleted, according to a letter a health department attorney sent to board members that was obtained by The Tennessean.
Ragan told the Tennessean he did not recall making such a threat and insisted he did not have the authority to dissolve the board on his own.
“I’m flattered that you and they think I have that much power. I can’t do that by myself,” Ragan told The Tennessean last week. “However, it is within the authority of the General Assembly, acting through the government operations committee, to dissolve them if we so desire.”
During the committee hearing on Wednesday, two Nashville-area physicians — Dr. Amy Gordon Bono and Dr. Katrina Green — attempted to give public comment in opposition to lawmakers micromanaging the medical board, but Ragan shut down both comments by insisting they were not directly related to the committee's agenda.
Ragan permitted a comment from a third physician, Dr. Kristen Miller of Memphis, who questioned how doctors were supposed to follow the medical board's misinformation policy if it was no longer online and accessible to the public.
“It is difficult even for a long-time practicing physician in the state of Tennessee, let alone someone that’s not familiar with what these regulations are in our state, to know what the definition of COVID-19 misinformation is,” Miller said.
Brett Kelman is the health care reporter for The Tennessean. He can be reached at 615-259-8287 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @brettkelman.
This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Another GOP lawmaker implies Tennessee medical board may be dissolved